Friday, June 23, 2006

Big Bus Trip of '68, Part 13

Richard and I arrived in Little Rock early on Saturday morning. His aunt met us at the bus station and took us to her home. We had barely slept on the bus overnight, thus were exhausted and not fully awake as she drove us through the streets of Little Rock. All I can recall is a sleepy glimpse of the state capitol in the dawn light.

She showed us to our beds. I fell into my bed, fully clothed, and slept till noon. Then I sat up, looked out the window, and saw a cemetery right across the street. It was an unusually narrow street, therefore the cemetery was but yards away from my window. I had been too tired to notice the cemetary when I arrived.

Later, Richard and I took a walk in the cemetery. The grass was wet from a heavy rain that had fallen while we slept; it glistened dully in the overcast sunlight, yet glistened nonetheless.

As we looked around, we noticed that the cemetery was unusually ornate; there were a great many statues of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and assorted angels, atop the graves.

Richard surveyed the surroundings and said, “All these cats are going to hell.”

“Who’s going to hell?” I asked.

“Everybody buried here.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because they’re all Catholics," he said. "This is a Catholic cemetery.”

I was taken aback. I said, “Well, maybe Catholics think all Baptists are going to hell.”

“Maybe they do think that, but they’re wrong.”

I couldn't figure Richard out. It had been his idea for us to go to church camp, but after we got there, he hated it. He chafed under the religious regimen far more than me—and he was the one with the devoutly Baptist upbringing, not me. And now—now that we were away from church camp and back in the real world—his uncompromising, deeply-engrained, hardshell-Baptist worldview was reasserting itself, with a vengeance.

We went back to his aunt's house. I saw a newspaper lying on the kitchen table. On the front page was a large photo of James Earle Ray, the accused assassin of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (an ordained Baptist minister, by the way), arriving in handcuffs and bulletproof vest at the Memphis airport. According to the caption, ariving in Memphis ourselves.

We stayed in Little Rock overnight. I did not sleep as well as earlier, now that I knew that, right outside my window was a cemetery full of hundreds of dead people, all lying in the ground alongside me. I thought: What if their spirits should rise up in the night? What if a few of those spirits should drift through the window into this very room and fly around, haunting me?

I closed my eyes tightly. I threw the covers over my head. And I sweated profusely, not daring to open my eyes or pull down the covers, for a very long time. And then, I fell asleep ...

In the morning, we were on the bus to Dallas. The thrill we had experienced on this same stretch of highway a week earlier was now gone, utterly. Gone, and replaced with weariness and irritability. We were getting on each other’s nerves. And we were homesick and hungry. The bus stopped at a café in East Texas, but it was crowded and our stop was short, so there was no time for lunch. I made do with a sack of candy.

In Dallas, we boarded our bus to Fort Worth. As we rode down the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike in the late afternoon sunlight, a toothless, bald-headed old man in the seat behind me laughed, shouted to himself, and sang gospel songs at the top of his voice.

The big bus trip ended at the Continental Trailways station in Fort Worth, where our parents met us. Richard and I went to our separate homes, and we were so tired of each other’s company, and so disgusted, and hated each other, that we didn’t see each other again for about four weeks.

The summer wore on. Except for a short trip to visit to my grandmothers in Mineral Wells, the summer was spent entirely in Cleburne, working at my father’s newspaper, reading, watching television, listening to records, working on one of my novels, hanging out with friends, and wandering the sleepy streets, usually in a morose state.

I was morose because I was back in Cleburne, the thrill of being on the road now but a memory. Also, there was this other matter: While in Tennessee, I had had a girlfriend. Now, I was back home and girlfriendless once more.

My diary shows that I greatly romanticized my brief acquaintance with Sheryl. It became a much bigger thing in my mind than it had actually been in reality. In my mind, she was the only girl for me, much better than the local girls, because (1) she was not local and anything not local was automatically better, and (2) she truly appreciated and understood me. If I only I wasn’t stuck in this small town, if only I could be with her, happiness would be mine. But ours was a doomed love affair, doomed by the miles between us, etc. A total fantasy.

I wrote Sheryl. She wrote back. We exchanged school pictures, then Christmas cards. Then the correspondence stopped. We had run out of things to write about—and, anyway, the local girls were turning my head. True, they were local, therefore imperfect, but at least they were real. My fantasies about Sheryl faded away.

But I did not stop fantasizing about the thrill of the road. All through high school, the road continued to call me. I could not wait to repeat the experience of traveling without parental supervision and seeing places I had never seen. I would study maps. I would trace the route of Highway 67, which was only a block from my house, and marvel over the fact that if I got on that very highway and kept driving, it would take me far away from this dull, depressing town. If I went northeast, it would take me all the way to Iowa. If I went southeast, it would take me through the Big Bend country to the Mexican border. And once I was somewhere else—anywhere else but this God-forsaken town—all my problems would be solved. All I needed to do was get on the road …

Well, I left that town years ago, and learned that even if your problems are particular to place, you will always find new ones waiting in the next place. An old lesson we all have to learn. And re-learn.

For the promise of the road always beckons—the promise of the new and strange. Adventure, romance, fortune are always to be found somewhere else, just a little farther down the road.

The road, the glorious road, stretching into the sunset …